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Driving Trouble in the Andes

With the intention of leaving Quito for a several day trip to Quilotoa, a friend who was visiting me and I decided to split the cost of a car and driver. Not knowing exactly where we were going, we figured the bus might not be the best call. We contacted the Airbnb we were staying at and they recommended us a driver, and we were set. Around 11 A.M a few days later a car pulled up, and a very nice husband and wife picked us up. I used the start of the drive to practice my Spanish and my friend, Caroline, decided to journal and sleep. We stopped at a roadside lunch spot that they recommended and had an excellent traditional Ecuadorian meal, so far so good. As we got further from Quito the mountains started to rise up in the distance, and I was enjoying having the window down, the driver found a rock station and I thought it was hilarious we were driving along rural Ecuador just bumping CCR.

Within the next hour we were high up in the Andes, I mean high. It wasn’t like driving along the roads in the Rockies, which provide enough vertigo even though they have paved roads and low walls to prevent a late turn turning into a fiery wreck hurting down the mountain. We were not graced with either of these handicaps, and we were cruising unpaved roads 10,000 feet up. We were really hugging the edge, and had at least one very near crash, saved by a honk and a late swerve by our driver.

While we were certainly getting a lot closer to the edge than I thought was necessary, I figured this guy grew up driving around here, who was I to tell him how to do his job. After a particularly nasty turn I looked over at Caroline, expecting her to match the excitement I was showing, or at least a reference to the tree-filled valley we were 13,000 feet above. I received a grimace, followed by raised eyebrows which I knew boded ill. Thinking of car sickness, I casually asked if she was feeling okay, to which she pulled out her phone and typed something out, which she handed to me.

“The driver has been falling asleep at the wheel.”

Well that’s not good. We were one turn away from a very quick descent down the mountain. Thinking this probably was an exaggeration, I tried to engage the driver in conversation. He then pulled the car over to the side of the road, and before even turning off the ignition his head hit his shoulder, OUT. Eyes closed, head on shoulder, completely knocked.

I loudly asked what was going on, and he just bolted upright, clearly going from fast asleep to wide awake. At this point I want to tell him to take all the time he needs. I'd prefer sitting in the back of the car on the side of the road for 45 minutes then not making another turn. But clearly me asking what was going on had reanimated the man, because, sounding put upon, he responded “oh I guess we’ll keep going” and pulled back onto the mountain road. Terrified he was going to fall asleep for more than 30 seconds next time, we spoke in comically loud voices for the remainder of the journey.

Had that been the end of the risky driving experiences in Quilotoa I still think it would have been enough. We were not so fortunate.

Two days later we decided to hike the Quilotoa reservoir. Myself, Caroline, and two other people from the states got dropped off at the reservoir around 11, and we started what we expected to be a 5-6 mile hike. We continued hiking down the mountain, but after hiking for 4 hours it became obvious we were hopelessly lost. This is not surprising, as the one instruction we got from the hostel owner was “take a left at the tall group of trees.” The Andes are a tree filled mountain range, this was not helpful.

Between the rain starting in earnest and the fact that the lunch was predominantly carrots, spirits were low by the time we wandered into the first town we saw. With one of the two other people in the group deciding this was it for her, we decided to hitchhike back to the hostel. Caroline flagged down a car, and we offered him a few bucks if he went out of his way to drop him off. He said yes, but with it being a single cab truck, it would be uncomfortably tight for 5 of us in the cab. Chris, the other American, suggested he and I sit in the bed of the truck. Hoping for a nice breeze and cool photo, I agreed. I did not learn my lesson about roads in the Andes. In the first mountain range it was clear this was not going to be comfortable, as we were thrown from side to side along the range. Looking out from the top of the mountain, we realized that a sharp turn from this stranger would send us both to our deaths. Again, I thought “it's fine, he probably drives this all the time.” Looking through the window, this notion was dispelled. One hand on his prayer beads that were hung across the rearview, he was steering with one hand and having a very serious conversation with his friend in the front seat. There is nothing that destroys confidence in a driver than them holding onto their prayer beads. It could not have been clearer that this was not a common activity for him. Thinking it was possible he was praying, I decided it wouldn’t be a bad time to say a little one of my own. Nothing like hitchhiking in the back of a truck in the Andes to turn one to religion.

I have learned two things about driving in the Andes.
Don’t do it.
If you are hitchhiking, just squeeze into the cab. You think the bed is better, it’s not.

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